Fate of Cthulhu Review

Sent back in time, you must save humanity from its enslavement by a godlike overlord. You must protect John Connor stop Cthulhu! …wait. What? We’ve talked about kitchen sink games before, and this mashup definitely edges towards that territory even while sitting firmly in Lovecraft’s Mythos. If you’ve seen one too many investigator go over the brink, spent one too many hours in a briefing room with Delta Green or can’t seem to get all of these Laundry Files out of your inbox, here’s another angle on Lovecraftian Mythos: Time Travel. That’s right, it’s time to go 30 years in the past to 2020 and help change the Fate of Cthulhu.

Fate of Cthulhu is a Fate Core interpretation of an RPG set among Lovecraft’s Mythos. Even though the Fate Horror Toolkit helped set up the system to better touch upon horror in general, Evil Hat Productions has chosen a unique spin on the Mythos at least partly in order to align more closely with the typical mold of characters in Fate: Proactive, Competent, and Dramatic. If you look back to Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, not only the first Mythos RPG but also a legendary game in its own right, you have a core gameplay loop where at least two of the Fate character properties will get you killed.

In Call of Cthulhu, characters are investigators who, as the game progresses, get closer and closer to finding out the awful truth about the nature of reality, particularly as it pertains to one of the “Great Old Ones”, elder gods with names like Cthulhu and Dagon and Nyarlathotep, who when awakened from their slumber will enslave humanity. In Fate of Cthulhu, this has already happened. The core characters in a Fate of Cthulhu game are survivors of the Great Old Ones’ return who go back in time to prevent it from happening. The reason for this inversion is simple: empowerment. Call of Cthulhu was all about the downward spiral, the dread of finding out the horrible truth as all the characters died or were stripped of their humanity. As is appropriate for a Fate game, Fate of Cthulhu actually gives an avenue to stop the doom from occurring, though as is appropriate for a horror game, it always leaves the door open. The use of time travel also provides one more thing that is quite important for a Mythos game: freaky Mythos powers.

So let’s talk about how Fate of Cthulhu sets up Fate mechanics to enable the freaky Mythos powers, among other things. A lot of the elements of Fate of Cthulhu are very similar to Fate Core: the skill list is tweaked minimally, there are five aspects that start with High Concept and Trouble, and Stunts are tied to Refresh in the same way as they are in a Fate Core campaign. One thing which is different, and which incidentally enables the aforementioned freaky Mythos powers, is Corruption. Characters in Fate of Cthulhu are assumed to either come from the present or come from the future. Characters which come from the future must interface with Yog-Sototh in order to go back in time, and therefore they all start with one corrupted Aspect. These Aspects vary, and plenty of examples are given in the book; one of the key example characters oozes black ichor everywhere he goes for his initial corrupted Aspect. Corrupted Aspects are the start of presenting corruption as a whole. As is appropriate for any game riffing off of Lovecraftian Mythos, characters are inevitably exposed to corruption that will eventually drain them of their humanity. Evil Hat has a well-done section on why they’ve moved away from the ‘insanity’ nomenclature that was used in earlier games using the Mythos, moving towards ‘Corruption’ as a term which is less stigmatizing. What’s also helpful though, is that this section includes guidance on how to use the more typical ‘insanity’ tropes and terminology without offending or stigmatizing the mentally ill. Anyways. The Corruption mechanic still employs the typical downward spiral which makes it so compelling in other games, while at least stretching it out in such a way that it’s not necessarily an inevitability. Characters from the future start with one corrupted Aspect and a corruption stunt. Through using their corruption stunt or interacting with strange magic or technology, characters slowly gain more corruption, until their only recourse is to corrupt another Aspect. Eventually all five Aspects will become corrupted, draining the character of all their humanity…but until that happens, more supernatural abilities become available. This is what makes a downward spiral most intriguing, of course…new and terrifying abilities, but with a significant cost. Fate of Cthulhu still employs this mechanic, already used to great effect in many games set within the Mythos, though the hope is that you can resolve the overarching conflicts before all of the characters are beyond saving.

The conflict structure that is put forth in Fate of Cthulhu is both intriguing and also shows the strength of Fate in mechanizing narrative structures. Within the book there are five plot threads, which center around the return of five different Elder Gods and are all structured the same way. Each plot thread has four elements which the characters can pursue: a person, a place, a thing, and a foe. While each of those elements are things that the characters can pull on, they also have mechanical representation. Each element starts the scenario with a die assigned to it, and like most dice in Fate these are either a plus, a minus, or blank. In the threads in the book (and recommended as a default start) there are typically two minuses and two blanks, starting the proceedings at a minus two. As the characters engage and thwart these elements, their die ratings flip, first from minus to blank and then from blank to plus. It’s these final die ratings that determine if the machinations of the Great Old Ones you’re facing come to fruition or not. There’s also a smaller subset of actions going on, defined in the book based on ingame events and interaction with the corruption mechanics. For every four of these events that occur, one die equivalent to the dice from the four elements (called catalysts) can be introduced. The swaying back and forth may seem rather uncertain for many players, but it fits in quite well to a setting where the vagaries of time and space are anything but certain.

In some ways, Fate of Cthulhu adopts the tropes of the Mythos readily. The corruption mechanic provides a compelling downward spiral, and one that can lead to a character being run off the deep end within a reasonably long campaign. On the other hand, the inversion is fairly obvious. Fate of Cthulhu is intended to, at a structural level, give characters a fighting chance against the Great Old Ones that never existed either in Lovecraft stories or in Call of Cthulhu itself. The fact that the tension of the conflict is mechanized is an important part of this. In Call of Cthulhu, GM discretion regarding the outcome of any given story wasn’t all that important, because it was expected that every character would either die or go insane on the way there. When suddenly this story is put into a context where the players have a chance, there needs to be a scoreboard. While Call of Cthulhu exists on one side of an RPG continuum where all is doom, the vast majority of games exist far on the other side of the continuum where no matter what the odds or obstacles, eventually the heroes will be victorious. Ironically for this particular scenario, Fate exists far on the end of player empowerment, where the game is stereotypically believed to be a venue for power fantasies and story circles. The reason Fate Against Cthulhu needs the scoreboard it has, where specific events stack modifiers either for or against the Great Old Ones, is that the plot thread of the game is not designed to assume either victory or defeat on the part of the players. This is something sorely missing from the vast majority of RPGs: tenable, granular failure states. Having characters die is a blunt object when it comes to failure states, and in fact in all Fate games the GM is advised to consider that death is rarely if ever the most interesting option for defeat. What Fate of Cthulhu does particularly well in this arena is establish stakes for the characters, and in establishing those stakes make it clear that failure is the default option. While there are plenty of opportunities for heroic reversals, these are neither assumed nor do they come without risks and sacrifices. This is, ultimately, not in genre for Lovecraft and his Mythos, but as soon as we knew the game involved time travel we shouldn’t have been surprised. What this should be taken as is a template for running games with competent characters. If characters can change the world, they can also fail to do so, or even make things worse in the doing. These stakes give weight to character actions. And that’s why a game about (no kidding) travelling back in time to fight Cthulhu manages to have some of the weightiest storytelling I’ve seen in a game recently.

Fate of Cthulhu is not a typical game in the Mythos. We start out by reminding everyone that HP Lovecraft was a racist (he really, really was), and then deconstruct and invert the Mythos by adding time travel, putting ineffable magic in the hands of the player characters, and also shaping the game into a mystery/conspiracy that needs to be solved. The result is not only a smart adaptation of Fate, but a deconstruction of the Mythos in gaming that, after over 40 years, was sorely needed. While Delta Green, Cthulhutech, and others wrote their own approaches to the Mythos, the investigation trope pioneered and ossified by Call of Cthulhu needed someone to fly right at it. Fate of Cthulhu sees what happens when you cross the Mythos with the proactive, competent, and dramatic characters of Fate, and I think the result is quite something. Victory may be possible, but it’s never guaranteed, and you never know when the Corrupted are nipping on your heels.

Fate of Cthulhu is available at DriveThruRPG and at Evil Hat’s website!

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